The world functions in dynamics of power and hierarchy. Although such power is sensed from time to time, it is hard to recognize sometimes. That power could be religion, natural forces or something else, artist Lee Jae-seok muses.
Most of Lee's works were inspired by his experience during his mandatory military service from 2010 to 2012 that lasted for a year and 10 months.
“I was 22 years old when I entered the military service. My experience at the military, which is based on a strict hierarchy, was so strong that it has became an important part for me as an artist,” Lee told The Korea Herald on Aug. 29 at Gallery Baton, where his solo exhibition “Exceptionally Complex, Yet Elegantly Engineered” kicked off on Aug. 23.
In South Korea, men between the ages of 18 and 35 are required to do mandatory military service.
Although Lee enjoyed his time in the military, he also wanted to make room to criticize the power structure he experienced there, a system which he said also prevails in society.
“I want to be an artist who is honest with himself. The paintings I created are based on my experiences and honest feelings,” he said.
The exhibition at Gallery Baton, which runs through Sept. 27, shows 15 paintings including “Alignment,” “Constellation_1” and “Carrier_1,2,” which appear to be influenced by surrealist paintings. In the painting “Alignment,” Lee captured the gravitational pull of the moon that influences the tides.
“I used to create images that would remind me of my military experience, but I am moving on to explore nature's power. The power mechanism in nature, which is invisible, but controls our natural system,” Lee said.
Lee's early work "Fragment" in 2017 shows flesh-like lumps of varying sizes and shapes in a line. His works later evolved into depicting human organs and gun components floating in the air. When he was hospitalized due to a broken ankle at the military after an accidental fall, he stayed in the same room with some 50 soldiers.
"I was looking at those people, lying on a bed waiting to be cured. The scene sort of looked like 'clusters of flesh' that are placed helplessly, and I got an impression of humans' bodies being used as a tool in the military, although I do not want to mention this too directly. But I think such concept can be applicable to our ordinary society too," he said.
While Lee did not expect to become a painter, he remembered that his father -- who used to run a printing office -- praised his sketching skills when he was a teenager. His father would do sketches and drawings at home after he lost his printing business, and Lee would sit next to him making drawings.
“I always thought that my paintings need to deliver an important message (conveying a social phenomenon). I used to like the paintings of Minjung art and Chinese artworks created after the Cultural Revolution,” he said. Minjung art, literally meaning “art for the people,” refers to the sociopolitical movement in arts that flourished in the 1980s.
As a young artist, Lee plans to explore different mediums beyond painting while sticking to a theme he has delved into since he left the military -- power dynamics and the invisible mechanisms that prevail in our lives.
“It could be gravity or social power. Something that controls me. If I had a tough personality, I would have expressed it in a more direct way. But I consider myself as sort of a reserved person. I think that personality shows in my paintings,” he said.
Born in 1989, Lee studied art at Mokwon University in Daejeon. He had a solo exhibition at Chapter II in Mapo-gu, Seoul, earlier this year, and another at the Seoul Museum of Art Storage in 2021. His works are also on display at “DMZ Exhibition: Checkpoint” from Aug. 31 to Sept. 23 in Paju, Gyeonggi Province.
Two of Lee's works will be shown at Gallery Baton's booth during the Frieze Seoul 2023 art fair, which will run from Wednesday to Saturday at Coex, coinciding with Kiaf Seoul 2023.
This is the second in a four-part interview series with Korea's emerging artists whose works are being shown at Frieze Seoul 2023 and Kiaf Seoul 2023 --Ed.